Gadid (cod) vertebrae from Nash Harbor, previously identified as herring (Souders 1997). Photo by Rory Walsh
Tiny vertebrae from Nash Harbor bulk sample as they appear to the naked eye. Photo by M. Moss
These Nash Harbor vertebrae have been sitting in a box at the Yupiit Piciryarait Museum in Bethel for 15 years or so. I am deeply indebted to Steve Street for re-locating them and sending them to me. I am also grateful to NIMA (Nunivak Island Mekoryuk Alaska) Corporation, who have been the owners of the Nash Harbor archaeological sites since 2007. 142 vertebrae were identified as herring from this sample. When I first examined them on Feb. 8, 2013, they didn’t look like herring, but appeared to be small cod (gadid). But there was so much sediment on the vertebrae, they were hard to see. I received permission to gently wash the vertebrae which I did. Then, I examined each and every one under magnification. They are NOT herring, not even a single one of them! They are a small gadid, perhaps tom cod. I think I have identified what may be a chronic problem in the north… when small fish vertebrae are found they may often be assumed to be herring without adequate examination. Years ago, when I first started working with fish bones, I never used a microscope… but today, we know we have to use magnification to identify small taxa. So this is a cautionary tale: if herring are reported as present, and no other small fish taxon has been identified, then you might want to re-visit the identification.
On Feb. 12, 2013, Richard Stern and I had an interesting exchange about herring. This got posted to my other topic (Deep History of Pacific Flyway), so I am re-posting it to Archaeology of Herring where it belongs. Thank you Richard!
From MM (2/12/13)
You have raised excellent questions, Richard. Thanks for your thoughts and great advice. I very much doubt much screening was done, because so much attention has been focused on defining houses and other structures in the arctic. As it turns out, the Nash Harbor herring bones are not herring after all!!! I examined them last Friday and found they are a small gadid (tomcod, small walleye pollock perhaps). I am going to photograph them with a microscope and post the photo. Establishing the northernmost range of herring is going to be an interesting outcome (hopefully!).
From Richard Stern, email@example.com (2/12/13)
Hello Madonna, Congratulations on getting funding for this.
Reading some of the herring posts and the other herring work
you (and others) have done makes me wonder about herring in Norton Sound and beyond. Thinking about the distribution of these northernmost herring fisheries, I wonder about Museum and other collections from Denbigh, Difchahak, and other coastal sites. Without going back to some of the original reports, I’m not sure whether or not the deposits were screened for smallish fish bones. There might be bulk samples still in the accessioned collections. Would be interesting to chat about this next month in Anchorage, and of course we can correspond via email too. The ADF&G area fisheries biologists might have some ideas too, but you’ve probably been in contact with them. Cheers, Richard
Nash Harbor (49-NI-003) is a site excavated by Dennis Griffin, now the Oregon SHPO Archaeologist, but formerly a UO graduate student. The fish remains were studied by Paul Souders, another former student of mine. Paul has been living in China for more than several years, and although he no longer does archaeology, both Paul and Dennis are in my mind as I sort through Nash Harbor specimens looking for herring bones.
Pacific cod bones from Nash Harbor (brown) shown in relation to UO comparative Gadus macrocephalus specimen (white). one of my favorite fish. Photo by M. Moss.
Dennis and Paul did the work that will allow me (eventually) to obtain herring bones to submit for aDNA testing. I am also grateful to a new colleague, Steven Street, Archaeologist with the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel. Steven is the one who has been locating the appropriate specimen numbers and sending them to me. So thank you to Dennis, Paul, and Steve. I still marvel at the tremendous size of the most important fish taxon found at Nash Harbor: Pacific cod. Just look at how big these Nash Harbor cod are compared to our comparative collection specimen! (which was 67 cm long [standard length]). This reminds me to also thank Diane Hanson, University of Alaska, who sent me the cod, and Torrey Rick who processed it.
lower teeth from Pacific sleeper shark from Hidden Falls, photo by V. Butler, scale in mm
As it turns out, acquiring herring bone specimens from repositories is much more of a challenge than I anticipated. But I am extremely grateful to Scott Shirar at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, who has been repeatedly sending me samples from which I can find suitable herring bones for aDNA testing from Hidden Falls. It is humbling to see my own handwriting on labels more than 30 years old! In sorting through one bag in the search of herring, I recently found 12 intact teeth. I took them to Portland State University where Virginia Butler was kind enough to photograph them, as shown here. Through Torrey Rick at the Smithsonian, his colleague Vic Springer identified these as from the Pacific sleeper shark, Somniosus pacificus. So the residents of Hidden Falls, Alaska, were using this species, previously unidentified from Hidden Falls, or from any other site in southeast Alaska. Pacific sleeper shark can range very deep (to more than 2000 m!), or they can be found stranded in a tide pool. How Hidden Falls residents used this species remains unknown. But this case helps demonstrate how much there is to learn from curated collections. Sincere thanks to Scott Shirar, Virginia Butler, Torrey Rick and Vic Springer!
The Archaeology of Herring: Reconstructing the Past to Redeem the Future has just been funded by NSF. Working with Dongya Yang (Simon Fraser University) and Camilla Speller (University of York) we will analyze ancient DNA from 150 herring bone samples from across Alaska. Expect an update by Dec. 1, 2012.
From Oct. 22 through Nov. 16, 2012, I will be resident at Playa, along the shoreline of Summer Lake, OR. I will be working on the project, Understanding the Deep History of the Pacific Flyway. I look forward to studying and experiencing how Great Basin lakes and marshes are used by the many species of migratory birds who have supported humans throughout 14,000 years of history in western North America.
As an anthropological archaeologist, I study the long term history of Native Americans and First Nations of the Northwest Coast of North America, focusing on Tlingit and Haida and their ancestors. My 2011 book, Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History (SAA Press) moves beyond standard culture historical treatments to re-evaluate new archaeological data on the Northwest Coast within their larger socio-political contexts. With Aubrey Cannon (McMaster University), I co-edited The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries, which brought together studies from Alaska and British Columbia south to Puget Sound (2011 University of Alaska Press). My current field and laboratory research in Alaska concerns how use of animals is foundational to the cultural identity and heritage of indigenous groups, and how zooarchaeology can contribute knowledge to improve fish and wildlife management and simultaneously support Alaska Natives in their contemporary practices.